Bill Nagel is a powerful man. With a flick of his hand, the Chandler retiree summons musicians in green lederhosen and suspenders to the deck of a German brauhaus. With another movement, he commands a train to roar past, silencing their merry polka with a piercing whistle.
Several miles away, Tim Georgvich exacts similar sway, controlling all traffic in and out of the mining towns of Cooper's Canyon and Mason's Mountain.
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Both men are tycoons, in a way: barons of their own backyard railroads. Their domains mimic real-world trains, structures - even people - with startling and minute detail.
It's a hobby alive and well in the East Valley, and you can get a free pass into the worlds of these everyday empire builders during open houses Saturday and Sunday.
"The craftsmanship and thought and work that's gone into some of these layouts will blow you away," says Dan Hoag, owner of Eaglewings Iron Craft, a fabricator of model railroad accessories in Phoenix.
Layouts typically start with a theme or era, such as the American West circa 1890. Hobbyists then set out to choose locomotives, buildings and accessories to match. Trains are scaled-down (typically 1:22.5, or G-scale) replicas of real trains that run on batteries, electricity or steam on brass or steel tracks.
"Some people are what we call 'rivet counters' because they're so into details that they'll make even the smallest things just incredibly accurate," says Hoag. "Other people will model a building after a real place they knew when they were a kid back in Ohio or somewhere. Some people create wild, fantasy railroads."
Most alter terrain to create landscapes for their locomotives, constructing miniature gorges, streams, tunnels, mountains and roads to serve make-believe towns.
Given all that work, most name their empires.
"Every real railroad has a name," says Hoag. "After you've created something like this, you have to name it. It's another way of giving it that authentic atmosphere."
Nagel based his railroad, Westerwalder Guter Zug, on wartime Germany, where he spent 10 years as a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. Now a retired medical technologist, he contends with many of the same problems he says real railroads face: repairing track beds, repainting buildings and chasing "critters" out of railway tunnels. (Neighborhood cats sometimes loom over his communities like furry Godzillas.)
Herta Nagel, Bill's wife, adds that the couple can't have anyone out to the house without a fuss being made over the miniature castles, mountains and airplane hangar jutting up out of the backyard. "The carpet installers saw it through the window, and they all had to go out and see," she says.
Georgvich says his Corona & Southern Railroad & Mining Co. is a way to share a little history and a lot of fun with his grandsons, for whom he named the miniature towns cropping up in his Chandler backyard.
"My grandsons have really motivated me to develop it," he says, "The older they get, the more they can actually work with me on it, and that beats coming over to watch TV or play a game of checkers."
Hoag agrees. "It's good a way to get involved with your kids; they can plant some flowers with Mom and build some things with Dad. It's a great family hobby."
Tips for starting your own railroad
Building a backyard railroad can be time-consuming and expensive. Save time and money with these tips from Chandler's Tim Georgvich, who's been working on his Corona & Southern Railroad & Mining Co. for almost two years.
Do your homework online. "When you're getting started it helps to look at everything online first and just see what's out there and compare prices," says Georgvich.
Contact a local railroad club and ask to attend a meeting. "There are people just dying to help someone get started," says Georgvich. Try Arizona Big Train Operators at (480) 924-8844 or azbigtrains.org, or Arizona Model Railroaders Association at (602) 493-0461 or www.azmodelrr.com.
Decide what kind of railroad you want. "Don't just buy something to buy it. Decide if you want to model a particular era or a certain real-life railroad, then look for pieces that fit that," he says.
Check newspapers, trade catalogs and the Internet for train shows, swap meets and classified ads. Georgvich has bought most of his items secondhand, saving, he estimates, up to 75 percent on some pieces. "If you go to a hobby shop, you're going to pay more," he says.
"Go to the convention," Georgvich says of the National Garden Railway Convention, held the first weekend in May in Chandler. "You can see a lot of trains and accessories and ask questions and buy your first piece right there."
Tour Valley railroads
Explore 21 working G-scale railroads during the ninth annual Garden Railroad Open Houses, taking place Saturday and Sunday at locations across the Valley. All are free, but donations go to Make-A-Wish Foundation of Arizona. Visit 10, and you're entered to win prizes, including tickets for the real-life Grand Canyon, Verde Canyon and Silverton-Durango railroads. Eleven of the locomotives are in the East Valley; plot your route with maps from Eaglewings Iron Craft: (602) 276-8101 or www.eaglewingsironcraft.com.
A&T Express: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 1862 E. Fountain St., Mesa
C&S Railroad: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 1474 W. Devon Drive, Gilbert
Dry Bone Railroad: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 3417 E. Manso St., Phoenix
Dry Wash & Tumbleweed Railroad: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 1708 W. Dixon Circle, Mesa
Corona & Southern Railroad & Mining Co.: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 4141 W. Corona Drive, Chandler
Gem & Fossil Railroad: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 5128 E. Kelton Lane, Scottsdale
Palo Verde & Southwestern Railroad: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 1929 N. 24th St., Mesa
Snort, Bear & Widget Railroad & Mining Co.: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, 7938 E. Las Piedras Way, Scottsdale
Swiss Railroad: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 4032 E. Tanglewood Drive, Phoenix
Trainquility Junction: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 3326 E. Fairfield St., Mesa
Westerwalder Guter Zug: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, 1236 S. Longmore Court, Chandler
National Garden Railway Convention
What: See model trains and layouts, ask questions of vendors and talk to other railroad buffs.
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 3, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 4
Where: Crowne Plaza San Marcos Resort, 1 San Marcos Place, Chandler
Cost: $5 per person per day